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The Power of Individuals

by Mable-Ann Chang

November 9, 2020

Jeremy HeimansJeremy Heimans, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer of public benefit corporation Purpose, looks at the influence that individuals have on society

Jeremy Heimans is the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, a public benefit corporation headquartered in New York with offices around the world. He is also the co-founder of GetUp!, an Australian political organization with more members than all of Australia’s political parties combined, and Avaaz, the world’s largest online citizens’ movement, now with more than 50 million members worldwide.

With Henry Timms, Heimans is also co-author of the bestselling book New Power, which has just been released in the Chinese mainland. It is a guide to spreading ideas, building movements and leaping ahead in our chaotic, connected age. The book was short-listed for the 2018 FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year and named a best book of the year by Bloomberg, Fortune and CNBC.

Heimans has served as chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Civic Participation and has been a keynote speaker at venues such as the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival, Chatham House and the United Nations.

In this interview, Heimans explores the power that individuals have in making a difference on major issues and the influence technology and COVID-19 have had on governance.

Could you explain what a public benefit corporation is and how such an organization would have any benefit and relation to China?

A public benefit corporation (PBC) in the US context is a legal construct for a company that must serve a constituency beyond its shareholders and that has the mission to serve the interests of society and push for social progress. A PBC is obliged not just to return value to shareholders, but also to return value to society. It is a relatively new legal construct but it’s really a way of capturing the idea of a mission-driven business. In theory, it was designed to protect companies from being sued by shareholders for making decisions that might not maximize shareholder value, but that might be in the interests of carrying out the company’s social mission.

In the Chinese context, there are some companies that have become B corporations—corporations that meet the highest global standards of social and environmental impact, and can lead other companies in the industry to use business as a force for good. B corps, however, are more of a voluntary certification, while PBCs are a legal construct. These companies are relevant all over the world to the extent where their mission can be executed with a degree of freedom and discretion.

How much influence do individuals have in making a difference on the major issues that face humankind, and what is the best way for individuals to promote and advance their perspective?

People have a huge influence in making a difference in social issues. We see that through things like the Black Lives Matter movement. For years there have been movements around racial justice in the United States and around the world, but the capacity now for people to turn those moments into incredibly powerful expressions of collective action and to create change has increased. It isn’t a dynamic where people are dependent on the mainstream media gatekeepers to amplify their voices anymore. Messages are now coming from ordinary people, which is a new dynamic to this complex question.

We’re also seeing a rise of authoritarianism, particularly populist authoritarianism, which is an interesting blend being added to the older power dynamics. There’s no doubt that there’s more participation happening, and that participation means everyday people are shaping society in dramatically new ways.

Photo of the cover of the book New Power
How would you compare the reaction to COVID-19 and its impact on the economies of the West and China?

We still haven’t seen the end of the crisis, so we could say that China has proven to be relatively resilient right now and was able to get on top of the virus early, but in three months there might be a second wave. The virus knows no borders and it’s not interested in geopolitics. It’s hard to assess the economic impact of the crisis while it’s still ongoing. In the US, we went from thinking that we were getting the virus under control over the summer and anticipating a possible second wave in the fall, and instead we have a virus that is running rapidly out of control in many parts of the country.

What we’ve learned is that the countries and jurisdictions that  take their public health responses seriously are also the ones that tend to do best economically. It serves no one to not get cases under control and it ends up creating uncertainty and fear. Some countries have opened and then have had to lock down again. Those I believe are the countries that are going to lose out. We saw China act very aggressively early in the crisis by addressing public health dimensions, but how it would respond in the context of a second wave remains an open question.

Government involvement in the Chinese economy is greater than that in the West, with the COVID-19 pandemic appearing to have indicated the need for more government coordination. What do you feel is the right balance globally in terms of government involvement?

This crisis has certainly caused a renewed view on the role of governments all over the world, not just at the economic level but also in the role of public health experts and authority. People have returned to the idea of old power gatekeepers and sources of expertise. There’s also been a recognition that there’s no way to respond to a crisis this big and this global, without a robust government response. I do believe that this has shifted attitudes toward government involvement in the economy all over the world. In the US, for example, we’re already seeing a public recognition of how we really need a good government in place and when a government fails, we all fail.

The European response, however, has in many ways been quite adept, particularly in the way that relief packages have been handled. The European response of essentially keeping people employed and paying most of their salary so that they didn’t have the dislocation in the labor market was much more effective in maintaining stability and continuity than the US response of writing individuals and companies checks.

If I were to make a prediction, I would say that there will be a greater understanding of the failures of the neoliberal economic paradigm coming out of this crisis. I think there will potentially be a renewed interest in localism because ultimately this crisis has brought people’s immediate communities into context. There will likely be a renewed appreciation for the role of working-class people in the economy, given that the front-line workers suddenly became the people who were keeping us alive. This understanding of the role of working people is an interesting moment for the debate about the future of the economy. More people have also come to appreciate the role of small, privately-owned businesses and just how vulnerable they are. All these things connect to the role of governments, but they also go beyond the role of governments. We’re not going to return to a 1950s style kind of welfare state-ism, but the European social democratic model that has emerged out of this crisis looks surprisingly good compared to the current American model.

Did the virus and its impact change your views on the impact of government involvement and personal freedoms in terms of how society operates? Are there any benefits to de-emphasizing civil society in favour of overall greater government involvement?

I’m not sure that civil society and government involvement trade off against each other necessarily. In fact, I would say that in crises like these, you need both sectors to be working closely together. We can all achieve more by getting the voluntary sector and the government sector to provide key social services together. We should, however, regard with some suspicion efforts to use a crisis like this to entrench policies of surveillance or limiting of individual freedoms in the name of the public health response. It may be that people are happy to submit voluntarily to greater surveillance such as contact tracing apps because of this crisis, and that makes a lot of sense. What we should be careful about is extending those policies of surveillance or limitations on freedom beyond the response to the crisis because governments find that they have the opportunity to do so. We need to be careful about the distinction. You could easily justify limitations on liberties because of a public health response. Mandating people to wear masks and mandating contact tracing is easy to justify, but not if it’s being used as a kind of ruse to create a surveillance state.

Some Chinese brands including Xiaomi have done very well by offering cheap, good quality tech, which now plays a huge role in the rest of the world. What does this say about the significance of China’s role as “Factory to the World”?

It’s clear from the current crisis that there’s a real dependence on China for PPE and of key equipment, which is a significant development. What does that mean? I think you’re going to see some countries try to develop their own national manufacturing capabilities, particularly around pandemic preparation in order to insulate themselves from the political pressure that might result from being dependent on any one country’s supply chain and manufacturing. What it shows is that manufacturing capacity is essentially power. It’s a power that can be wielded by those who have it. For countries that are trying to be responsible, they’re probably going to want to think about distinguishing between goods and services that are non-essential.

Xiaomi producing masses of high quality, low cost tech is okay because there’re many other ways to get that tech that don’t involve a dependence on one country’s manufacturing. It’s different when it comes to essential products. Governments are now wanting to make sure that there’s a truly global supply chain and that comparative advantages are being respected.

How is tech changing the fundamental principles of governance around the world?

It’s clear that some tech platforms have become so powerful that they’re now beginning to impact on the way that governments and democracies work. Facebook is arguably now as powerful as many countries are in terms of its capacity to influence discourse, and that’s certainly true as well for some of the big tech platforms in China. Technology can be an arm of the state and can be used to manipulate the public. It can be used to stoke hatred of minority groups and to increase a government’s capacity for surveillance. The way Facebook was used to enable hatred toward the Rohingya in Myanmar is an example of this, and it’s something that Facebook very much let happen in many ways. However, technology can also be used to create very positive social movements like Black Lives Matter.

There are extremely close links between governments and these allegedly private platforms in the West, just as in China. You could argue that there’s a similar dynamic in the US—it just looks a little bit different. Ultimately it’s a dangerous dynamic, whether it’s in China or in the US.

While you stress the role of individuals, leadership clearly plays a role in the way societies operate. China promotes its system as being meritocratic and avoiding the messy appearance of Western systems. What would be your view?

Meritocracy is a word that’s used by a lot of people to justify a lot of things, and meritocracy is very much in the eye of the beholder. It’s certainly not clear to me that the Chinese system is inherently more meritocratic than other systems around the world. When it comes to messiness, certainly there is messiness in the law, and there is no doubt that democratic governance in Europe and the US is messy, and you could argue it’s getting even messier. That messiness also produces better social outcomes in some ways than a system that’s slightly neater, but that also has huge negative implications for individuals’ well-being in certain contexts.

Globalization has been the overarching trend over the last four decades but now appears to be under question, with talk of a decoupling. What would be your view on what both China and the US should do and what the goal should be?

Philosophically, I would start with the position that we need a fair and open international trading order. One that creates justice and fairness for workers, one that respects the environment and takes the environment seriously as a criterion, but that also creates economic opportunity and helps reduce poverty, which is much harder to do without a fair and open trade order. That’s kind of where I would come from philosophically. I expect that if we get a change of administration, we’ll get a less erratic approach to those negotiations, which will lead to some progress.

I don’t see protectionism or the putting up of trade barriers as the best way to solve some of the problems created by the current global trading waters. We need to fix those problems without destroying the benefits that come from freer trade. And I think that applies to the China-US relationship as well.

There are those who say that regardless of culture, society and political system, there is a convergence of mentality and outlook across the world. Do you see anything like that happening and what would be your view on it?

The idea that there has been a globalization of culture is both true and not true. It’s certainly the sort of trend toward global integration of everything that we kind of expected in the early days of globalization. We didn’t expect to see this rise in nationalism, this rise in tribalism that we see all over the world, from Brazil to India to parts of Europe and arguably to China. At the same time, among young people particulalry, there is a common cultural language in many parts of the world. There is an ability now to transmit ideas, Black Lives Matter being a great example. It’s a truly global and transnational movement. I think there’s going to be competing trends in both directions.

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